Cringe TV: Why Two and a Half Men is not as offensive as you remember

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
6 Min Read
When Two and a Half Men was at the height of its cultural relevance, it was already cringe.
When Two and a Half Men was at the height of its cultural relevance, it was already cringe. Credit: Olivia Desianti

Charlie Sheen is sitting across from a woman in an interrogation room in the fifth episode of Two and a Half Men.

The episode is a parody of police procedurals and the woman is a cop trying to solve a murder. But all Sheen’s character Charlie Harper can do is stare at her breasts. It’s obvious because the camera also pushes in on her decolletage, followed by Charlie’s comment, “That tank top is awfully distracting, is that police issue?” Cue laugh track.

It’s not a particularly notable scene in Two and a Half Men because there are so many of them just like that, but it is a prime example of how its female characters are reduced to sex objects or as shrews and manipulative harpies out to destroy the two and a half men in the title.

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Revisiting the series today is mostly a misadventure, full of wincing moments and eye-rolls at its constant stream of sexism, homophobia, fat-shaming and playing mental health issues and alcoholism for tepid laughs. And “laughs” is probably being generous.

That’s to be expected. What’s unexpected is that Two and a Half Men is not as offensive as you remembered. Its outrageousness is almost quaint in its mildness.

Few series that premiered 21 years ago would pass the taste test in 2024.

You know what else came out that year? The James Cann and Josh Duhamel dramedy Las Vegas, which spent such a high portion of every episode on close-up shots of bikini-ed women in the hotel pool it would make the Transformers movies blush.

Two and a Half Men: Angus T. Jones, Jon Cryer and Charlie Sheen.
Stars Angus T. Jones, Jon Cryer and Charlie Sheen. Credit: Supplied

The thing about Two and a Half Men is that when it was at the height of its cultural relevance, it was already cringe. Even as it was one of the most popular TV shows around the world, there was always a strong counter-conversation that smashed it for being, well, gross and not funny.

Take how it treated Charlie, the character Sheen played for eight seasons before the actor was sacked from his lucrative gig amid intense dramas off-screen including a public spat with his boss, TV creator Chuck Lorre.

Charlie is introduced as the supreme bachelor — a jingle writer who never seems to do any work, with a bevy of barely named, physically attractive women revolving in and out of his Malibu beachfront house. Having his brother Alan and nephew Jake move in didn’t dent his style.

Two and a Half Men with its anachronistic attitudes is not as rage-inducing as what misogyny looks like in 2024.

Funny or Die’s Gil Ozeri once undertook a 75-hour marathon of the first eight seasons of the series, and he tallied that Charlie had slept with 68 women across those 175 episodes. David Duchovny wants his sex addiction back.

Most of these women were disposable and unmemorable, but apparently, they must have found Charlie and his bowling shirt and cargo shorts combo irresistible. Others were allowed to make an impression, but only briefly.

Jenny McCarthy’s Courtney scammed him out of tens of thousands of dollars while Jeri Ryan’s Sherri was seen as the female equivalent as Charlie and there can be only one alpha.

One of Charlie’s fiances, Chelsea, is the focus of a subreddit debating whether she was a “crazy b*tch” who tried too hard to change Charlie and then leaving him for someone more mature. In turn, he cheated on her, stalked her and gave her chlamydia.

And, of course, there was poor Rose, the neighbour portrayed by Melanie Lynskey, who was depicted as an insane obsessive whose only purpose in life was to entrap Charlie. And she supposedly had a master’s degree in psychology.

Melanie Lynskey as 'crazy' Rose.
Melanie Lynskey as 'crazy' Rose. Credit: CBS

Like his alcoholism — Charlie splayed across the stairs the morning after a bender is somehow not a red flag — Charlie’s womanising is indulged as a cute character trait for the essentially “kind-hearted” character. “That’s Charlie!” may have been the show’s catchcry.

For every fan who watched it week-in-and-week-out across its 12-year run (at its peak, the series attracted 28.74 million viewers in the US and 2.6 million in Australia), there were just as many people who held it as gospel that it was awful.

And it was, especially compared to some of the other smart 2003 shows that were acclaimed then and still (mostly) hold up now, including Arrested Development, Battlestar Galactica and Peep Show.

So why isn’t it as offensive as it once was?

Oh, it’s not good. Let’s not be crazy. And it’s all relative. Two and a Half Men with its anachronistic attitudes is not as rage-inducing as what misogyny looks like in 2024.

Charlie Harper is not Andrew Tate, the British-American internet personality who called sexually active women “used goods”, blamed rape victims and spread his toxic masculinity to throngs of vulnerable young men looking for validation.

Charlie Harper is not Jordan Peterson, the influential Canadian writer who excuses incels, is openly transphobic and disguises his hateful views as pop psychology bolstering men’s self-esteem.

If Tate and Peterson were outliers lingering on the margins of the dark web, we wouldn’t even need to put them on the bell curve. But they’re not. They’re merely the paragons of a resurgent misogyny.

Which is not to let Two and a Half Men off the hook completely. But distance has given the series a kind of grace precisely because it’s seen as “of its time” even as we know it was already regressive in 2003, and definitely in 2015 by the time the series wrapped up.

Smart and smutty: Angus T. Jones, who plays Jake, and Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men.
Two and a Half Men with its anachronistic attitudes is not as rage-inducing as what misogyny looks like in 2024.  Credit: Supplied

Those arguments that pop culture of a different time can’t be judged by today’s standards often ignore that it was never OK in the first place. Think of Gone with the Wind, which was released in 1939. Seventy-four years after the end of the US Civil War, it was still pushing a racist Lost Cause narrative of the American Confederacy.

Nostalgia is often used as a shield, but it’s a powerful one. Two and a Half Men plays better today because it’s no longer a potent weekly reminder that its embarrassing, punch-down sense-of-humour is beloved by contemporary audiences.

Rather, it’s now a cultural artefact. It comes with the unsaid disclaimer of, “Oh, isn’t it terrible people used to think like this, and made jokes that victimised both Alzheimer patients and sex workers in one punchline. Thank goodness we’ve moved on”. Even if, in some respects, we haven’t. We’ve just changed, the offensiveness morphed and moved away from popular TV.

But it makes us feel better because we can look at it and go, “not us”, while being able to appreciate that it was part of a time when broadcast television still had the power to capture the zeitgeist, when we weren’t inert from choice paralysis.

It was a time when traditional sitcoms with their familiar, unchanging formula made things “simple” because at least we could comprehend and counter the ways in which Two and a Half Men was offensive — and laugh about it.

Now that weird uncle or too-chatty Uber driver who used to love Two and a Half Men and randomly shouting “winning” and “tigerblood!” is instead mainlining YouTube conspiracy videos and quoting current-era Mark Latham. No one is laughing.

Maybe it was a blessing in disguise because if Two and a Half Men was the worst of mainstream sexism and regressive social attitudes, versus the hyper-deranged political division of the 2020s, then who wouldn’t want to indulge in some nostalgia.

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